‘That’s the last time I’m going up one of those.’ Stephen Fry jokes that these were his first words as he was being born. Whether you have an internal reproductive system of your own or you care about someone who has one, the need to break the culture of taboos and embarrassment around gynae health is vital for everyone.
It was one of the interview questions when I sat in front a panel of Trustees and researchers: ‘If you’re appointed CEO of the charity, do you think you’ll feel comfortable talking about all five gynaecological cancers – by name – in public?” My answer: ‘erm, yes’. I’d spent most of the previous decade working on public health campaigns – trying to understand the barriers to people looking after their health and the health of their children. What I knew was that education was central, banishing body-shame essential and that none of this could all be done at school, or just at home, or largely through TV or all through policy change. It was a combination of addressing the issues on all fronts that was needed to shift culture around women’s specific health.
That’s been our approach at Eve – to tackle all the barriers to looking after girl to woman health. We’ve worked closely with policy stakeholders and are delighted that prevention and early diagnosis is now central to the new NHS Plan. Looking after our own health, knowing our bodies, being able to spot when something isn’t normal (for us) and then to seek medical help (and be listened to) is what will make all the difference and shift diagnosis one stage sooner, or better, stop cancer before it starts.
But with the gynae cancers and gynae health in general, I’m incensed to say, it’s definitely not ‘job done’. It’s true that the vagina is getting more attention – some fantastic books have been published this year (Vagina A Re-education and The Vagina Bible), a really sensitive Channel 4 documentary (100 vaginas) and a new Sex, Health and Relationships curriculum that includes menstrual education – to name but a few.
But there’s also a huge but growing ‘feminine hygiene’ industry that’s finding ever new unnecessary products to develop and sell to ever younger women. The global market is predicted to reach $42.7billion by 2022 – that’s a 6% growth since 2016. These products are unnecessary, peddle stigma and quite literally sell shame in a bottle. We still hear stories of parents brought in for safeguarding chats because their children have used the word vagina at nursery school. Our most recent survey (YouGov, August 2019) shows a woeful ability to do what I had to in my interview – name anatomical body parts with only 1% of parents ever using the word vulva with their daughters.
Educating children is important. Continuing that conversation as girls grow up is vital. Talking to your mum about her health and checking in that she’s aware of what she should be looking out for as she approaches the menopause is something we should all be doing. There’s a good reason for this: the risk of developing any of the five gynaecological cancers increases with age. Indeed, most women diagnosed with one of the gynae cancers have had their menopause. Almost three quarters of cases of these diseases are in women aged 40 to 74.
So that means we need to have an important conversation with the women in our lives – mums, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, friends, colleagues. It’s really important to educate women of all ages about their gynae health and help them be confident about both spotting signs and symptoms as well as talking about them to a doctor.
That’s why we’ve put together some tips (Educating Eve Part 2) on key information and how to approach these conversations. There’s lots to talk about – sex, toilet habits, body parts – but if you can do share one symptom it’s abnormal bleeding. Please shout this one from the roof tops because everyone needs to be aware of it – there is NO SUCH THING as a ‘normal’ post-menopause period. Once a woman has gone through the menopause, she cannot menstruate i.e. have a period. Ask Eve hear things like this ‘I am 58, went through the menopause a few years ago but had a bit of a period last month’. The average age for a woman to go through a natural menopause in the UK is 51, and someone is post-menopause once they haven’t had a period for at least twelve months. There are many (non-cancer) reasons why a woman may have a vaginal bleed after the menopause, but the fact is that abnormal vaginal bleeding is also a key sign of womb, cervical and vaginal cancers. Now you know this, you have an obligation to share it.
Perfect Sunday dinner conversation. And we all know who is everyone’s dream dinner party guest. Over to you Stephen – especially as your mum’s middle name is Eve…